Are Wellness Apps Healthy?

Are Wellness Apps Healthy?

Dear Smartphone: I want to develop a wellness habit here in the New Year. My co-workers are encouraging me to download and install phone apps that will help, but I am not so familiar with them. I’d like to exercise more and use my phone less. Will an app help me with my bad habits and are these wellness apps healthy? Leena

Dear Leena: It’s good to approach this with a degree of skepticism. You might begin your wellness journey on paper, reading about how we develop habits. You can then practice changing them with simple ideas, like friction and ritual. For more insight here, see the popular book Atomic Habits by James Clear.

Phone apps may be useful, but they are not a panacea. Most people download new apps with the best of intentions, but never use them. In fact, 2016 data suggests that after three days of the installation, 77 percent of users never open the app again. After three months, only 5 percent of users are still using a given app. There are nearly 350,000 health and wellness apps to choose from and it is doubtful that the app is going to sustain the changes you seek over the long run.

That said, you might find some apps be useful if they help you measure and track change. There is a built-in pedometer that reports how many steps you walk each day, and other apps that will record changes in your heart rate. These apps do what stepping on a physical scale might achieve. Seeing the daily change can be motivational (but be aware of measurement errors). 

Other wellness apps may require you to write in events or keep a diary- say to record the type and amount of food you eat. The hard work is writing it down or recording- it’s not automatic like the accelerometer working behind the scenes to count footsteps. These type of apps are likely to present more of a challenge. However, people enjoy sharing their progress (and setbacks) through social media. This may help them find the support and enthusiasm to persevere.

Finally, in your quest for better health, you will come across wellness apps that want to send you messages and reminders. These apps might inform you that it’s time to stretch, or prompt you to close your eyes and take a break.  A prompting app is vital if you need a medical reminder- say to monitor blood pressure or insulin levels.  But for more general uses these notifications could be an impediment. If you are seeking balance and wellness, these apps can distract you.

As you seek out new habits this year you might first examine an unlikely source, namely your smartphone device. You mentioned that you hope to lose some weight. Make sure that your phone habits are not interfering. If you spend a lot of time randomly scrolling in the evening is there a sugary drink at your side? Are you seeing lots of ads for snacks and sweets that you decide to try out?  Or say you are finding that you want to be outdoors more: are you looking at your phone out when you take a lengthy walk and falling into a habit of taking less steps but longer texts? 

There’s every reason to try out different apps in the New Year- just don’t depend on them entirely. A couple of things to keep in mind are that app developers make treatment claims without needing to validate them. There is no regulatory oversight of most health and wellness apps. So be careful of what they promise and realize, at the extreme, that some apps that purport to give expert advice are downright harmful. 

Second, be cautious about how much personal information you share with the apps and what you allow them to access on your phone. Although most apps are without charge they collect significant data that they then trade or sell to third parties or affiliates. If you are trying to change your habits and well-being do you really want to share that with your insurance company, an employer, or social media ‘friends’ that repost?

Finally, you could try out a different approach in 2023 to improve your physical health and well-being. Cutting back on screen time might give you more time to focus on other activities, boost your mood, and even enhance your relationships. Best of luck with your goals and a happy New Year.

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